Another View: The Human Cost of California’s Wine Country

Category: Listening Sessions, Personal Stories, Poverty News & Policy Updates, The Safety Net

November 16th, 2023

Devon Gray is the president of End Poverty in California (EPIC). Previously he served as a special adviser in Gov. Gavin Newsom’s administration. Greg Kaufmann is EPIC’s chief advisor for narrative and storytelling and a contributing writer for The Nation.

This article originally appeared in the Napa Valley Register.

Napa County is the ninth wealthiest county in California — a state with the fourth largest economy in the world. It has a mean income of more than $135,000 and its wine industry yields $7.7 billion annually.

And while the seat of the county, the city of Napa, is known for its quaint downtown, fantastic restaurants, wineries, and throngs of happy, buzzed tourists, more than 10% of children there lived in poverty over the past five years, including, according to just-released U.S. Census data, 10.1% in 2022.

As part of our antipoverty organization’s statewide listening tour, we visited Puertas Abiertas, a community resource center only blocks away from downtown Napa. We met with about 40 Latino women and men who pick grapes, clean hotels, and perform many of the other service sector jobs that create the county’s wealth.

Their experiences are further evidence that an abundance of profits in this state are not changing the lives of the working poor. As one woman who works two jobs and whose husband is a former farmworker on disability put it, “California is not what it looks like.”

Hand-in-hand with a lack of money is a lack of power. Indeed, one struggle this community has in common with every other community we’ve visited over the past 18 months is around housing: constant rent hikes, no recourse against landlords who refuse to address poor living conditions, and a lack of representation in eviction court.

“The county should look at the growth of the economy and see how it is generated by the workers. They should see our needs,” said one longtime resident. She noted that families like hers are never able to buy a home in the area, no matter how long and hard they work, and that it’s common for three to four families are share apartments. She also said that poverty has increased post-pandemic.

“There used to be hardly any trailers,” she said. “Now there are so many.”

An undocumented woman shared that for three years she struggled with cockroaches and a foul odor in her apartment, as well as broken smoke detectors. The landlord refuses to address the issues and raises the monthly rent $150 annually.

“The manager doesn’t care. [He] can take advantage of us because we have no papers,” she said. “Why can’t the city inspect apartments? We have children living here.”

Another Spanish-speaking woman said her landlord talked to her only in English, even though he spoke Spanish fluently with her neighbor. He’d also constantly ask her for her social security and residency cards, despite her telling him that she only had a consular identity card. She was scheduled to appear in eviction court the morning after our conversation without representation. “I’m thinking all the time, ‘What will I say to the judge?’ I’m afraid I’ll be classified with an eviction my whole life,” she said.

This issue of representation resonated with the group.

“It’s important [people know] that we don’t have lawyers to represent us,” said a woman seated next to her who works as a hair stylist. “People tell me I have rights, but when I find a lawyer I don’t have enough money.”

And it’s not just legal representation that is lacking but political representation as well. Most of the people at our meeting lived in communities that are unincorporated “islands” within the city limits. That means that they can’t vote for city council members or on other local issues. They said the residents in these areas are predominately people of color, and poor. It is the political equivalent of redlining, only instead of denying mortgages people are denied an access to power.

Finally, the thing on everyone’s mind was jobs. There are not enough jobs for farmworkers during the offseason from October to January, and there was a feeling that too many longtime farmworkers are being displaced by guestworkers, who are paid lower wages.

“A lot of wineries say no one wants the jobs so they can get guestworkers, but it’s not true,” said one woman. “They need to cap it at a certain percentage. They are replacing people with 10-15 years of experience.”

In the end, what is happening in Napa is happening throughout the state and nation. In too many industries it is acceptable and even encouraged to simply extract wealth off the backs of workers —particularly poor workers of color — without sharing that wealth in any way that is even remotely equitable or that provides economic mobility. It makes the claim that hard work will lead to success in America, or that our nation is a meritocracy, patently absurd.

Our meeting ended with community members calling for a rent strike to send a message that they would no longer tolerate being treated as “less than.” However, as long as we prioritize a cheap glass of wine, or burger, or produce — and maximum profits for shareholders — these dynamics will not change. Ultimately it is up those of us who don’t live on unincorporated “islands” to demand change with our wallets, our votes, and the policies we fight for.